July 31, 2010

Stop Looking At Me!

I just spent an hour or so making dog food for my beast - not because I like handling raw meat so much as I like knowing what my dog is eating. If I don't know what's in there, then there's not much I can do to prevent his getting sick. I can't control what he finds on the trails around our house (he's a dog, after all), but I can see to it that he gets a proper diet to maintain his health.

This is why I find it so strange that the Conservatives decided it was vitally important to do away with the long form census this year. Population information is vital to governing... well, anything, really. I cannot imagine someone trying to run a business without having as much information on their own operations as possible.

Well, I can imagine it, just not for long.

Basic asset management 101. It's not even a case of a business getting information on customers. Everyone in this country is part of the country - we're not apart form it, we are it.

The only defence I've heard on removing the long form from the census was a rather feeble libertarian effort claiming it would reduce the number of government employees because the short form is easier to check. In between claims that the government was going to use their ill-gotten knowledge of how many bathrooms are in my house for their own nefarious (and mysterious) ends, of course. Alas, Industry Minister Clement himself mentioned that the federal government was going to spend $30 million in advertising to encourage people to fill to fill out the new forms.

A slightly more reasonable claim could be that by placing the long form under a different title (the National Household Survey), it no longer becomes mandatory to fill out, letting people relax about the theoretical invasion of privacy the survey involves.

First, about that "invasion of privacy" thing that some folks rail against: Statistics Canada has an excellent reputation around the world for maintaining that privacy. No information is ever rendered down to an individual basis, not for anyone. Even other branches of government can't see individual responses; neither can CSIS, the RCMP, or Revenue Canada. You even have to check a box to say you agree to release your information 92 years from the census date.

Frankly, if you're still around in 92 years (I know I will be), why not brag a little? More seriously, I'm a trivia nerd, so I think it would be interesting to see how people in Canada actually lived during World War I instead of relying just on popular images.

Second, making not filling out the survey punishable by law really does get more people to fill them out - even when breaking that law only involves a minor fine and a reprimand. That "Oh yeah, right!" moment when a reminder is delivered weeks later brings a second wave of responses as folks are goaded into opening the envelopes for the first time.

Third, the whole purpose of gathering information is to make governance possible. For those who say "Why would I want to help them?" ask yourself if you want to live with an educated populace, with well maintained roads, a sufficiently manned police force, and hospitals that can care for the people living there.

It becomes a far more serious issue when not filling out the census is viewed as a political stance: if Canada, many in First Nations communities consider it an act of rebellion, feeling the information gathered is somehow used against them. This led to the very strange situation where the 2008 census numbers were different from the Indian registry, leading to complaints that the information was skewed to show fewer natives were living on reserves. This was after the Akwesasne and Kahnawake tribes refused to participate.

So yes, the numbers were different: tens of thousands of natives refused to take part. So you can see how those two things might be linked.

Still, Tony Clement is standing by his decision to change how the long form census is delivered, and he's been

"[...]actually pleasantly surprised at the support I am getting given the one-sidedness of the mainstream media[...]"

No, really. He's had a few people Twitter him with their support, so all that negativity out there must be the "main stream media". And where have we heard that excuse for failure before...? It looks like the "main stream media" in this case includes the chief economist at the Toronto Dominion Bank, a former clerk of the Privy Council, the CEO of the United Way, the CEO of the Toronto Board of Trade, the president of Environics Analytics, and a dozen and a half other folks who either rely on accurate information or know something about getting it.

I swear the phrase "main stream media" is turning into a dog whistle for people trying to claim popular support for stupid actions. Maybe not always, but it certainly is now.


posted by Thursday at 2:16 pm


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